England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Election opportunities

Just a few weeks into 2015 we’re firmly into pre-election mode. Only a particularly brave or foolhardy punter would bet a lot of their own money on the outcome of the most unpredictable contest in 40 years.

But if you were so inclined, you could do worse than the 6/1 that William Hill is offering on there being two General Elections in 2015.

The chances of an indecisive election result remain high and we can be fairly confident that the 2015 version of a hung Parliament will make the 2010 negotiations look like a model of stability.

Fewer seats for the Liberal Democrats, gains for the SNP and UKIP and possibly the Greens, plus the usual rainbow mixture of nationalists and unionists all make the space between Labour and the Conservatives more fluid and unpredictable and make it unlikely that anyone will be able to play the decisive king-maker role that the Liberal Democrats played in 2010. Expect horse trading.

While the fixed-term Parliament Act certainly makes it harder to have a second election, it is not that difficult to foresee a scenario in which two-thirds of MPs decide to call it quits and go back to the country.

So, we could well have a considerable period of uncertainty at national level. Does that matter? It’s always heartening in this context to recall Belgium: without a government for 535 days in 2010-11 and for 135 days last year and seemingly none the worse for it.

That sort of hiatus is incredibly unlikely in the UK of course, but it’s a thought experiment worth running.

What would happen if there was no government? In reality, most of the things people really care about on a day-to-day basis – who looks after grandad, is there a school place for the kids, have my bins been collected – would all carry on perfectly well, because, of course, they are delivered by local government.

So, it might not matter that much for most people, at least for a while, but what about local government itself ?

Once upon a time we might have worried about a lack of central government to set targets, issue guidance and monitor performance. These days, we’re likely to be more relaxed about it.

One feature of the last five years is that day-to-day engagement with DCLG has become a distant and un-mourned memory for most councils.

Does that mean local government should not waste its time thinking about what the outcome of the election might be? Or that it should just keep its head down and wait for the dust to settle and a government to emerge?

In the end, albeit via a circuitous route we are still likely to end up with a government that is broadly Labour-flavoured or broadly Conservative-flavoured.

In many ways both of these options present similar challenges for councils and a similar opportunity.

Labour has indicated that it intends to stick to the same overall spending envelope for local government though it has committed to a ‘fairer redistribution” of that money (which is likely to mean a shift in resources towards London boroughs and northern mets)

Both parties are committed to devolution, though we might note that the favoured language for this, ‘devolution’, or ‘decentralisation’ encodes a certain power structure that is hardly revolutionary.

Both parties have a tension between Heseltine/Adonis tendency. It sees devolution largely in terms of city regions, infrastructure deals, combined authorities and, increasingly, elected mayors and, on the other hand, a more pluralistic world view, which starts with places and outcomes rather than structures and which accepts that very different forms of settlement will work for different parts of the country.

This is a messier vision of devolution, or perhaps more properly, an evolution of local power. That is a harder sell politically, but one that is richer in its capacity to respond to local need and aspiration.

If we do find ourselves without clear leadership at national level, there will be a window of opportunity for local government to make the running in terms of how devolution should really work, not as a national lobbying strategy, but as an offer of the sort of deal that specific places need to drive growth and reform public services.

As Westminster squabbles and deals about how to form a government, looking increasingly like the proverbial bald men fighting over a comb, local government will be getting on with the serious business of delivering services, shaping places and serving communities. This puts it in a powerful and credible position.

The one absolute certainty after 7 May is that we will have a new government. Like all new governments, it will take some time to find its feet and local government must seize that opportunity to stake its own claim to power.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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